How Bush Plans to Get Out of Iraq

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The Plan: In Annapolis, Bush lays out his vision of Iraq's road ahead

Critics may not be able to grasp President Bush's plan for extricating the United States from Iraq, but now at least they can hold it. Pummeled by charges that Bush either does not have a workable strategy for drawing down troops or is concealing one for political reasons, the White House put out a 38-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" in conjunction with his remarks at the Navy Academy on Wednesday outlining how he will decide when sizeable numbers of troops can come home.

Speaking in an Academy gym packed up to the nosebleed rows with midshipmen in their dress blues, Bush gave one of the more emotional addresses of his presidency. He choked up reading a letter, left on the laptop of a Marine corporal who fell in the line of duty in Iraq that said the fight had been worth it. Members of the audience knew they, too, might some day be in the same position. "To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief," Bush said, to extended applause. He spoke hopefully of a time when troops in Iraq "return home to a proud nation," but said there will be no "artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."

That means don't mark your calendars: "No war has ever been won on a timetable—and neither will this one," the plan says. But read between the lines, and it is clear that the administration is setting a predicate for substantially reducing the 155,000 troops now in Iraq ahead of the midterm congressional elections in November 2006. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top administration officials have been laying the groundwork for weeks, and Bush removed any remaining mystery when he said in Texas on Tuesday that the Naval Academy speech would outline "the progress we're making in training Iraqis to provide security for their country"—his central criterion for bringing U.S. forces home.

Bush advisers tell TIME that the speech and document are aimed at framing a graduated departure from Iraq in the President's own terms, so that he can make it appeared principled and deliberate, rather than a response to pressure from public polls or needling by Democrats. "People on the Hill say he has to get out of there," a senior administration official said. "We're reminding folks there's a plan. The President wants to talk about the way in which we measure progress, going beyond stay-the-course versus a change." This administration is big on consistency, so the document is laced with quotations from past Bush speeches. But it also gives him leeway by noting that part of staying the course is adapting to changing conditions on the ground.

Bush's trip to Asia two weeks ago was interrupted by a tearful call by Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Vietnam combat veteran, for withdrawal within six months. The White House initially answered with flippancy, saying in a written statement that the longtime Pentagon supporter was "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party." Bush's remarks at the Naval Academy, and a planned series of other Iraq speeches leading up to parliamentary elections on Dec. 15, can be viewed as his more considered response.

The blueprint, replete with management jargon like "conditions-based" and "eight strategic pillars," will be criticized for being overly rosy. "Our strategy is working," it says, pointing to the steps that led to the Iraqi elections. Perhaps the biggest dispute will be over how prepared Iraqi forces are for taking over, a process that has been slow and frustrating for the United States, and that visitors to Iraq immediately realize is far from fruition. Bush acknowledged problems at the Naval Academy: "The training of the Iraqi security forces is an enormous task, and it always hasn't gone smoothly."

The document defines three levels of victory: short term ("an Iraq that is making steady progress in fighting terrorists and neutralizing the insurgency"), the medium term ("an Iraq that is ... providing an inspiring example to reformers in the region, and well on its way to achieving its economic potential"), and the longer term ("an Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic and secure" and "a partner in the global war on terror"). "Troop levels will decrease over time, as Iraqis continue to take on more of the security and civilian responsibility themselves," the document says. "We expect, but cannot guarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process consolidates and as Iraqi Security Forces grow and gain experience."

"Quitting is not an exit strategy," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters earlier this week. And of course "cutting and running" is unspeakable for administration officials: "If we retreat from Iraq, the terrorists will pursue us and our allies, expanding the fight to the rest of the region and to our own shores," the blueprint says. So to the degree that departure is synonymous with victory, the President is giving the public a course in semantics as much as strategy.